Oct/Nov 2019  •   Fiction

The Widow of Shafter

by Emily Collins

Image courtesy of The British Library photostream

Image courtesy of The British Library photostream

Brother Pascual sat on the floor of the Sagrado Corazon, where, though you and I weren't Christian and had no ties to the old ghost town, we attended the monthly service. All we had was a piece of silver that had belonged to your great grandfather when the Shafter mines shimmered like winter in the boomtown days. We were recently married, woven together. Everything was new, everything exciting. We craved the strange.

The walls of the church gleamed with old license plates. Chinese lanterns bobbed on a cord. A porcelain Mother Mary, in a ring of candles on the altar, faced a sign saying, "Relax. There is no control."

Brother Pascual liked to end each service with a story. I tried collecting them. I likened his stories to broken fragments in which a greater shape waited to be formed. But stories didn't always favor me. Like birds, stories flew past me and lived in the air.

Brother Pascual's face flashed with legend. At the end of the 19th century, he told us, a drunken general from Mexico stumbled upon a mound of glittering ore. Its promise drew hundreds of laborers and soon the richest acre in Texas was born. But by WWII, when the price of silver dropped, the mine closed, the town was dismantled, and everything turned to dust. Men tore the roofing from their neighbors' houses. Homes were gutted of their copper wiring. Yet still the Sagrado Corazon continued to beat.

One day, Brother Pascual said, a young couple like ourselves arrived. The woman was pregnant, filled with the sun, beautiful. But no sooner had they wandered into the cemetery than the woman collapsed in labor. Brother Pascual helped the man bring her into the church, he said, and when the child was born, it flew out of the woman, straight into his arms. Brother Pascual saw the whole of that child's life in the moment, he said, the fears and the loves, the ceremonies, the ends.

"I held that child," Brother Pascual said. "I held him as if I were holding on to my own life. It was then I knew what this church had to be—a place for miracles or no miracles, a place for people to be together in the familiar and the unknown. It had to be a place for people like you."

On the ride home you asked if I believed the brother's story. I did believe it, but I was chilled by the words, "for people like you." I was flattered and afraid of what he'd seen. I told you I liked the first part, which I did. It was the origin story of the Shafter we knew the day we met. When we were children, and you nursed a love for me so strong it was, you'd joked, almost a "rip off," like some piece of you had been destroyed.

The first time I saw you, I didn't see you at all. We met in the old tabernacle where my family served. My family was from Austin but owned property in a Baptist encampment outside of Marfa. Your father, a gemologist, had been invited to speak at an evening service. It was the summer solstice, which meant nothing to Baptists, but your father insisted we light candles to honor the longest light. Everyone loved his necklaces and rings, the crystal, agate, and emerald. Years later, as a wedding present, he'd give me his best work: a silver necklace with a heart-shaped agate.

You sat with your mother in the front row. You said you'd sensed me before you saw me. You said it felt like the first time you ran your hands over green calcite—a rush of blood to the face with sweet palpitations of the heart.

I was 11 and incapable of enjoying a church service. While you watched me, I watched bats swoop through struts and beams. It wasn't until we stood to light our candles, and you turned again to face me, that I saw. You were tall and wonky-eyed, with lashes so thick my girl cousins couldn't keep still.

That summer you joined our ranks. Your parents dropped you off at the encampment each day, and you'd explore the grounds with my cousins. I considered you one of us, but I didn't dare say this aloud.

I remember the day my twin cousins Reese and Taylor played a cruel joke on you. The four of us were climbing the hill behind my parents' cabin. Reese and Taylor were 14, with wide, acne-marked foreheads. At the top of the hill, the boys turned to us and said whoever found the most disturbing bug would win ten dollars. Reese brought a crumpled ten dollar bill to his nose and inhaled deeply.

We accepted the challenge. I caught a scorpion, and you dredged up the scariest centipede we'd ever seen. You held up the bucket containing the centipede, and my cousins declared you the winner. You raised your arms in victory, and they punched you in the stomach. They laughed and walked away. A wildness rose within me, and I hurled the bucket at their heads. The bucket bounced off Taylor and the centipede landed on Reese's chest. Fear blanched his face. He shrieked and tore off his shirt, whipping the ground as Taylor laughed until tears streamed down his cheeks.

I wrapped your arm around my neck and helped you up. We walked this way down the hill as Reese screamed, "I'm going to kill you, Colette."

"Like hell," you said.

One night, in bed with our wine, I asked if you remembered that day on the hill.

"How could I forget," you said, laughing. "You were amazing."

The wine helped you sleep. You were prone to spasms, but they never lasted long. I worried how your body could just lose control like that.

"I can't stay still around you," you said, kissing me long. "It's all your fault, my dear."

I said you were right. We loved hearing the other say that.

I never told you that a few days later I confronted one of my cousins. I told Reese he ought to be kinder to you, that you were like family. We were eating lunch at the dining shed. Reese stared at me. The meat on his tray was raw and bloody. He put down his fork and leaned across the table.

"He's not family," he said. "You think any of us look like that?"

I thought he was ridiculing your eye. Then I understood. He was talking about how your family had crossed the border illegally. My family offered pleasantries, but their hard-heartedness was a constant pang. I didn't share their nonsense, but I'd soon learn there was a coldness in me, too. You never saw this potential within me. You were beyond my darkness.

The last night of summer vacation, my dad took everyone to see the Marfa lights. He parked the Tahoe on a ranch near Route 67. Everyone but us took off to see the orbs in the sky. I complained of a stomach ache, but really I wanted to see. I knew the orbs vanished if someone got too close. You'd offered to stay behind with me. We lay on our stomachs, waiting. We thought someone in a nearby house had switched on their porch light, but there was no porch, only the light. We slid from the truck and crept silently toward it. There were pinks and blues at its center, like an abalone shell. It was watching us. I felt a ghost-warmth on my chest. A terrible tenderness crawled inside me. Then it started to sing, faintly, no more than a hum. The hairs on our bodies were rigid and tall. I was hypnotized. I held out my hand. The orb vanished. Our cheeks, we saw, then, were stained with tears we hadn't known were there.

We never spoke about that night to anyone. We never spoke about it again. I hope you don't mind I bring it up now. I figured, after all this time, you'd be glad I remember.

The summer I graduated from college, my parents gave me the keys to their cabin out west. I'd just broken up with my first serious boyfriend, and everything tasted bitter. I parked outside the cabin and looked at the red earth. I saw nothingness, and I saw light. The first passages of Genesis were a strange comfort to me. God was alone and powerful, and this, somehow, wasn't enough. We were borne of the first dissatisfaction.

My boyfriend's departure had whittled my appetite. My body turned fashionably skinny, elegant even. I was young, but I didn't feel it. One day the future would happen to me, and I might not like how things turned out. I feared I'd never have a child. The men I loved didn't share this concern. I hated how they could stare down the wild indifference of time and shrug.

The mountains were yellow and blistered with shrubs. Their silence held a permanence I failed to find in any person. I left the vast expanse of romantic hope behind. Then I turned around and saw you, a shock of brown hair over your wandering eye. You held a dirty rag. Your shoulders were slippery with sweat. My name was under your tongue. The ground was feverish. All things were imbued with meaning. It'd been four years since we saw each other last. I'd almost forgotten.

You'd taken a part-time job at the encampment to ready things for arriving campers. It was your last day on the job. Later, you said you'd have run away with me no matter what.

I showed you my palms. You took them and pulled me close. I weaved kisses down your throat while you whispered my name. We drove to a spring and bathed. Sunlight on the water flashed like a borealis. You chased a catfish, and I stood on my fingertips. You swam through my legs, and I shivered. When we rose, you reached inside my swimsuit while I writhed in silence.

There were other people around. We could tell they could tell. It was exciting. I wanted you more. I watched wild turkeys strut beside the mesquite trees that appeared to drip with honey. Like our bodies, their trunks were entwined. Beauty, I understood, exists in parallels.

We checked into a lodge. You took me in your arms and laid me on the bed. We were slow and good. When I rode you for the fifth time, sweating and crying out, the sun had fallen. In the morning, your fingers combed through my hair and my cheek stuck to your chest. As the light seeped through the curtains, I knew I would never leave the desert.

Four months passed, and we were engaged. We hunted gemstones in the weeks before we married. You'd earned your geology degree that year. Now, your father set to retire, you'd soon take over the family business. Your memories were filled with crystals pattered like ferns with sparkling budlets. This was how I chose to imagine your days before me. My childhood without you was colorless and dim. Snakelike cracks in the mountains east of Alpine exposed agates your father had never touched. We shoved our hands into the open veins. You let me hold the pea-shaped nodules covered in red skin. I thought back to when they were darling little bubbles gasping in flows of lava. Only ten percent of what we found, you said, would have something inside worth cutting. I said that was the most subjective thing I'd ever heard.

"You're an artist, Colette," you said. "The process should be familiar."

No one had ever called me an artist. I'd attended a liberal arts college in Austin where I toyed with poetry and filmmaking. My attempts were more ungainly bear swats, I felt, than divine excursions. How you saw this power in me, I'll never know.

When we were through, we drove to Shafter to see Brother Pascual. I'd heard of Shafter, but my parents had never taken me. Brother Pascual wore jeans and a long flannel shirt. His hair was ponytailed, and his eyes were monochrome. There was a lightness and certainty to him I found irresistible. He told us about his vow of solitude. He wasn't Catholic, but he loved Mary like a mother. It was his dream to found a hermitage. I couldn't tell what he knew, but the lines in his face said he'd earned it.

My father had given me a Polaroid camera. In the cemetery, I photographed garland-covered crosses. I shot the Sagrado Corazon and sinking adobe homes. I held the photos and waited for the images to emerge. You wrapped me in your arms and murmured the best promises.

Our wedding was small and elegant, everything we wanted. We were married outside the encampment near a watering hole covered in Apache drawings. I got ready in a canopy tent. My mother, tipsy, helped me with the veil. She'd started drinking after my parents split up. She said you'd better not break my heart. "No wanker is worth the suffering," she'd said. I stared at my church-going mother. It was like a peony had somehow belched.

Your mother and her sisters entered the tent. They giggled and cooed. They played with my hair and twirled me around. I was covered in a feminine, tactile love I'd never known until then. My mother stumbled off and cursed my desert wedding. Behind me your mother dangled the heart-shaped agate on a silver chain and clasped it round my neck.

Afterwards, we walked hand-in-hand to the watering hole and waved at passing cars. A voice in my chest told me to hold onto you for as long as I could. When I asked why, there was silence. Then it rained.

Behind the camera a power crackled through me. I controlled the story. While you looked for gemstones, I'd visit Shafter. Our time apart filled me with enough longing to search for a beauty of my own.

I loved the dirt stains on the houses. In them I saw dried oleanders of blood. Brother Pascual caught spotted geckos and held them long enough for me to shoot.

When I was done for the day, he and I had lunch on the church steps.

"You're a storyteller," he said.


"Show me the difference."

I couldn't.

"I wouldn't call it a dream," I said. "It's just something I'm trying out."

"Don't give it up. I didn't."

In our honeymoon phase, we loved telling each other stories. You couldn't remember how they started, and I forgot their ends. There were days we couldn't get out of bed. I worked the front desk at the Marfa bookstore. When I called in sick, I could hear the smiles in their voices. I was a terrible actress.

I had my first opening at a gallery in town. I'd entered a contest under a different name and won. I'd played with gum oil and natural light. The Sagrado Corazon looked like a charcoal drawing. Brother Pascual's hands were stuffed with shadows.

You were the first I told. You congratulated me, but your voice was shallow and you shunned my eyes. I didn't understand. You were the first to call me an artist. How could you see something beautiful prowl within me then vanish the moment I saw it, too? I broached a new darkness. You must have noticed for you squeezed my hand and said you wouldn't miss the opening for the world. I decided to believe you. We must go gentle with what we are.

At the opening, you beamed at those who praised me, but not once did you say you were proud. I believe, over time, this would have become the essential rift in our marriage: the unspoken belief my gift was somehow less than yours.

After that, I neglected my work for years. Part of this was having to understand life without you. But there was another reason. There's a truth to hidden gifts I was reluctant to accept: we must give them to ourselves repeatedly. The process takes everything, and it's never simple. That's how anyone lays hold of things. Knowing this, I'm different now.

When you left, our wooden house was drafty and bare and the rugs were cold. Your grandfather's silver sat on my nightstand. When I turned on the light, it burned with absurd luminosity.

At first, I enjoyed the solitude. Then you went missing, and solitude was gruesome. Every morning the light returned without you. Townspeople flew to the bed I wouldn't leave and promised you'd return.

They couldn't know I was to blame. The last day I saw you, I stopped you at the door and said I was unhappy. I was hurt by your behavior at the gallery, so I lied. I said I was sick of the desert and that I'd sacrificed too much to live with you. I said I hated everything about my life.

Your strange eye narrowed, then focused. You sneered at me, but I knew the pain in my chest mirrored your own.

"Everything?" you said.

It could have just been a petty fight, but I stared you down. My teeth scraped my bottom lip.

"Everything," I said.

You were found at the bottom of the mountain. You'd had a seizure and hit your head on a rock. I told your parents I never knew you had epilepsy. They said you didn't. I'd read that seizures not caused by epilepsy were psychological. I thought of our last conversation. I pictured the storm in your brain, your neurons swirling like streamers. We'd been married less than a year.

The weeks after your service, I was smothered in love. Our friends slept on the couch. Our families washed my hair and trimmed my nails. Then they remembered their lives and moved on.

I rotted in that house. The air thinned in every room. I was relieved we'd decided against a dog. I couldn't take care of myself, and I had to get out. I packed my things and headed to Shafter. I stopped at a boutique in town. I bought a black feathered gown and a matching church hat with a veil casting shadows across my face, like the grille of a confessional. If I could peacock my despair, I wouldn't have to feel it.

In the tabernacle of our childhood, the choir sang a hymn called, "It is Well within My Soul." It was written by Horatio Spafford after his daughters died in a calamity at sea. His wife had survived and sent him a telegram saying, "Saved, alone." On a ship to meet his wife, at the place where his daughters had drowned, he thought, "Even so, it is well within my soul."

He had received peace from the heart of despair. When I lost you, I wanted nothing to do with such a thing. Loss was a revelator and a thief. It beckoned every feeling then snuffed them like a candle.

Shafter was vast and unmoving. I was dramatic. I pitched a tent outside the Sagrado Corazon and roamed the town in my black dress and hat. I never changed or bathed. I self-medicated with bourbon and indica. I sat in darkness with my knees against my chest. I dreamed I was trapped in a stone. When I woke, I rubbed your great-grandfather's silver against my skin until it bled. The fabric of your life was the only one that mattered to me.

Down past the church there were great skirts of dust along the creek. I'd grieved in Shafter for two weeks. Clarity hovered above me but never descended. I moved toward the creek as if by some instinct. I was not looking for trouble, but I craved the most delicious sleep.

I washed my face in the water. Its temperature was cold enough to burn the skin. Behind me the Sagrado Corazon was not far. Its windows gleamed like the city streets that used to excite me. It takes courage to revisit a life. Not every pleasure will hold up, and not every sorrow will close the same door. I didn't have courage or much of anything. I crouched beside some rocks near the creek, despising what I had.

There was a rattle, a dizzying whisper. The snake was coiled in the dirt, an elegant creature of diamonds and lines. His face, earth-golden, hid behind his checkered body. His eyes were cloudy and blue. His tongue scraped the air between us. He sounded his alarm again. His fear was intoxicating, and I was fragrant with hurt. I wanted to know everything, and I wanted to leave. The shadow of my hat encircled us, the snake and me.

At the sound of the shots, it fled. I couldn't tell myself from the sky. Brother Pascual had fired his pistol from the church steps. He ran to me, cursing, something I'd never heard, and took me in his arms. I looked at my hands and sobbed. I was alive, young and growing.

"Why did you do that?" I said.

He rocked me and brushed the hair from my face. "You know why."

I felt a prickle in my fingertips. I didn't know it was you until the sensation filled me. I was afraid to show you what was there: the disparities making me whole, the hidden life I'd held back like a passionate note. You greeted these places as an old and loving friend. Then you kissed each part of me goodbye. I felt you as one feels strength. I thought of the night we, as children, stood before a strange and beautiful light. I remembered how you'd held me back. Now I wanted you to never to let me go.

I wept in Brother Pascual's arms, and when I was through, you entered the sky. Our joy and pain sloped away. I forgave us.

That evening, Brother Pascual changed his story, the one he'd told about his vision with the baby. The new story told about blood between the mother's thighs, and screams.

"I never saw the child's life," he said. "There was no vision."

"But you said the child showed you what you wanted this place to be."

"That was true."

"Why tell me something different?"

His eyes were static. He wanted to tell me something but couldn't.

"There's no reason, Colette. I wanted you to know."

The day had lost its warmth. The sun slipped behind the earth and the last light shot through the clouds. The sky was all scales. I feasted on a papaya. Its cold juice streamed down my chin as I licked its swarm of seeds. I moaned silently. Tears of mercy stung my eyes.

I looked down at my dress. Chunks of black feathers were missing as though I'd been plucked. The feathers remaining hung in sour, hard tendrils. I sniffed the fabric, and my stomach lurched. I reeked. The stench was unconscionable. I cried out, and Brother Pascual shook beside me, laughing into his fist.

"My girl," he said, "I wasn't going to say anything. I was hoping you'd come around."

I was 23 then, 34 now. I am tired, happy, and full of plans. Every summer my husband and children leave Austin and journey to Shafter. Brother Pascual's hermitage has grown. People pitch tents outside the Sagrado Corazon or bunk in the abandoned houses. They are intelligent and kind, full of longing. They let me take their picture.

Brother Pascual and my husband talk outside the church. My sons play in the cemetery. My husband inspects the Sagrado Corazon. He knocks as if the place were capable of crumbling. My husband, my love, likes to press against my past. He wants to see where he fits and where everything else falls away.

I can't tell what Brother Pascual is saying, but I know he's telling a story. Narrative is everything to me. It isn't beginnings that trouble me. I don't mind endings, either. Even death, your death, cried out silently to be understood. It's the middle parts, unexplained, I can't forget: a woman bleeding on a church floor. Men so frightened of this world they'd tear the roofing from their neighbors' houses and vanish. Your heart beating against mine.

It's not the promises you made or the coldness I carried like a virus. It's that there's something I never told you: our story is not what I would have imagined, and yet, I'm in awe of us and everything in between.

Somehow, all is well.